The Saturday City: Quito

Set high up in the mountains, Quito is the capital city of Ecuador. Outside of Rio, Buenos Aires or Bogotá, I have always pictured South American cities to be past their prime – built up in the past and left to just decay.  I had always imagined Quito to be dirty, grimy, a bit unsafe, and with a pocket of modernity.  I’m not sure why I thought this way – probably too much American media and experiences in Central America that I lumped together.

Regardless, I came to Quito without high expectations. And in the end, I loved this city. It was phenomenal.  One day I was at Ejido park and I came across an Ecuadorian version of “The Three Stooges” (old American slapstick comedy group). My Spanish isn’t good enough to understand what they were saying but their slapstick was funny. I sat watching them for a while. Throughout town, I discovered amazing food from delicious outdoor stalls, to food markets, to good western food. Any city with good food is a city I love.

Despite the altitude, I walked and walked around the city, though sometimes my lungs felt like they were going to explode. I enjoyed the mix of old world Spanish architecture and modern buildings. Moreover, the city was a lot cleaner than I expected. After spending considerable time this year in Central America, it was nice to visit a city that didn’t have trash littered everywhere! If you are looking for things to do in Quito, I suggest the following activities:

El Panecillo– “The bread roll” or el Panecillo is a hill overlooking the city. It’s famous for its views and used to contain a temple before the Spanish arrived. On the hill is the statue of the Virgin Mary that was constructed in 1976 and is 41 meters tall.

Architecture– Quito is home to a number of colonial and excellently preserved houses.  The two best can be found on an alley called La Ronda. The first is Casa de Benalcázar, one of the early founders of the city, and Casa de Sucre where Field Marshall José de Antonio de Sucre, a leader in Latin American independence, lived.

The Equator– Given the country name, it shouldn’t be surprising that the equator is in the country. It’s located near Quito and you can visit the real and fake one. The fake one is a 30 meter tall monument, constructed between the years of 1979 and 1982 to mark the point where the equator passes. However, when they got GPS and checked it, it turns out they were off. Now you can visit a mini-museum paying homage to indigenous Ecuadorian culture that has the REAL equator in it. They have a few fun science experiments there too.

Plaza de San Francisco– Though you’ll see many churches in the city, San Francisco is one of the oldest and prettiest. The city’s oldest building, its construction began in 1534 and it is baroque in its design. There is a huge plaza outside the church that is good for people watching.

Cotopaxi– Approximately two hours south of Quito is the world’s highest active volcano (19, 348 feet). It is a brilliant location for outdoor activities such as mountain climbing, hiking, horseback riding and even camping.

Parque Metropolitano–  Parque Metropolitano is a very good park and its height provides the best views of the city.  You can get a lot of good photos from here and the surrounding neighborhood is quite nice. I recommend asking where the entrance is before you walk there or you’ll find yourself (maybe like me) using the tourist map only to find out the “entrances” are all locked but the main one.

The Old Town– Most visitors concentrate their time in Old Town, which is a UNESCO site. Here you’ll find the city laid out according to Spanish planning requirements, with the central plaza at the heart. The plaza features the Palacio de Gobierno, the Cathedral, and the Palacio Presidencial. You will also find Independence Square here.

Museo del Banco Central-The Central Bank Museum has a good collection of artifacts from all of Ecuador’s regions and cultures. There are many pre-Incan artifacts too. I wouldn’t have thought a bank museum would have such things but this one does and it’s not that expensive to get into.

La Mariscal– This is where all the expats and tourists seemed to be. I couldn’t walk 5 feet without a Texas BBQ or Irish Pub popping up. This neighborhood was trendy, filled with bars and posh restaurants.  It seemed like the place to be during the night time with all the bars and clubs but during the day it was simply filled with tourists eating overpriced food. The houses in the area are nice and colorful though.

Quito was a lot different than I thought it would be. I expected a grimy South American city but instead found a city rich in culture, architecture, and filled with good food and locals.  I met a guy who worked for the American embassy while there. Him and his girlfriend had nothing nice to say about Quito. To them, it was a dangerous place where people try to cheat you.  I inquired what he did for the embassy and he said he dealt with all the emergency calls American tourists place. That experience probably colored his perception of the city since he only hears the bad stories. I was glad I met him at the end of my trip. His slanted view might have made me more guarded while I was there. I found all the locals I interacted with very friendly.

I loved Quito. There’s a lot to do here, there’s plenty of history, a good night life, and friendly locals. And what more could you ask for from a city? I would definitely like to go back there. If you make your way to Quito, spend some extra time here to enjoy the city. Don’t just use it as a place to fly to the Galapagos Islands from.

  1. Raquel

    I loved this article, being that I’m from Quito–would love to travel w you since you don’t seem afraid and know so much

  2. “Outside of Rio, Buenos Aries or Bogotá, I have always pictured South American cities to be past their prime – built up in the past and left to just decay.”

    I’m assuming you haven’t been to Santiago yet then. It’s not at all like that. Funny how we get images of different places around the world that have nothing to do with their reality based on snippets of things we’ve seen and heard somewhere.

    I’ve heard a couple people lately talking about how they’ve been surprised by really liking Quito. Hopefully I’ll be able to visit in the not-to-distant future.

    • NomadicMatt

      I haven’t been to Santiago at all. It is funny how our images of places are colored by what we hear from others. I think that is the beauty of travel- it shatters our conceptions of places and just proves them all wrong!

    • A good hostel to stay when in Quito is ‘The Secret Garden’. Its in the old city and only 2 minute walk to the tram. You can see it from the hostel roof resturant and bar. Up the hill, behind the hostel is a great resturant and a short 5 minute walk and there are shops and supermarkets. The hostel also offers classes in Spanish for a reasonable price. Dont forget to go up the Teleforica. Great views over all of Quito. I think everyone enjoys visiting here. The ‘South’ Bus station is also a short taxi ride away.

  3. It is much better this way when you do not expect much from a place and then find it amazing, then the other way round :) Glad u liked it!
    The clouds on the pic with the Palacio look fantastic!

  4. Was actually planning on checking Quito (and Ecuador) out this summer, but opted to buy tickets to Guatemala instead (gonna take a Spanish course) because I heard that the weather is kinda yucky in Quito all year round. Tell me more about the altitude. Did you feel sick at all?

    Where were you in Central America? Which places were the most unsavoury? I just got back from Bali, and while the beaches are beautiful, I was appalled by just how much trash there was all over the place. Terrible, really.


    The few nights I spent in Quito were weird, memorable and kinda scary. They were very gloomy days and very dark nights… I felt like I was trapped in a horror movie, every minuted that went by I felt like something bad was going to happen. Not because of the people, the city or the atmosphere but simply because of the coolness in the air and the weather. None the less, we had a great time with the locals; drank a little too much and saw a great live cover band..

    Great Article

  6. I recently moved to South America and took a short trip to Quito. I really enjoyed reading this article as I think in the back of my mind I had pictured the same kind of environment: an area full of poverty, gray, and bland. I was presently surprised to find that Quito was full of life with a vibrant culture. I guess it just shows that travelers should really not judge a book by its cover, or I guess in this case destination.

  7. I lived in Quito for eight months, in the old city overlooking the Plaza Grande and the Panecillo. Just be aware that you are taking your personal safety very lightly if you walk around that neighborhood at night…or if you take public transportation, where eventually you will be pickpocketed. Thieves think nothing of shoving you into a car and carrying you off to empty your ATM account, then leave you beaten on the road side. The police, by the incompetence and corruption, are complicit. Just remember, if you have your mobile phone stolen, you can buy it back the next day at any of a number of shops in the old town.

  8. Kevin

    I’m glad you had a good experience in Quito. Having low expectations and then exceeding them is definitely better than the opposite.

    For those interested in teaching in Ecuador or Latin America, there is a great book about a person’s teaching experience in Quito called,
    “In the Shadow of the Volcano.” The inspiring and heartwrenching stories of the Ecuadorian students help paint the picture of the heartbeat of Quito.

  9. Thanks for your post on the city of Quito. That is a place I had not previously considered, but if I do ever make it to the Galapagos islands (which is on my list), I may have to spend a few days in Quito as well. Thanks for posting.

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